Leadership 102: True Leaders Build Great Successors

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

In Leadership 101, I had written on the greatest mission of a leader is to inspire and direct the creative energies of his/her following. In conjunction with this however is the greatest challenge of a leader: leaving a lasting legacy. The greatest legacy a leader leaves is not any program; it is not the road, nor bridges nor the hospitals. To the contrary, artifacts in people’s heart make lasting legacies. Great leaders make great successors; they build a legacy of self service, inspired followers and everlasting memorial.

Understand that true leaders don’t impose their successor; in fact, to involve in the succession game is belittling to a true leader. A greater leader does not tele guide his successor; he does not meddle: a great leader just builds successors. The plural of course is important and intentional in conveying my point. Great leaders in history leave a coterie of immediate aides and associates, who themselves will later emerge as leaders. Look around you, every great leader build a group of successors that either equal him or even perform better than they do. An example is the current democratic race. Not less than three to four of the candidates were either mentored or inspired by President Bill Clinton great leadership. One is his wife, another, his energy secretary, another a young black man that confessed to idolizing the president.

Great leaders, inspire generations after them. An example is President Mandela. Madiba as he is popularly known could afford the Robert Mugabe luxury. He could be president for life: heck, he was jailed twenty plus years for his people. But Mandela was a true leader. He served one term and quit- and to his lasting legacy he left two men or more who could succeed him. One is Mbeki who is currently in office; another is Zuma who wants to succeed Mbeki. ANC is littered with many other baby Mandelas- because Mandela inspired while he led. Leaders don’t pull down their followers like Olusegun Obasanjo did (to Abubakar Atiku), they build them up. They don’t pull them down not because they can’t do so, but because they see in their followers a deep reflection of their own good values. The values Atiku reflect of Obasanjo are well known to you and me.

Leaders care more about what happens long after they are gone than their immediate popularity. However, they do not fritter away the support or support of their followers in the present because they realize the importance of human relationships to get things done. Leadership of course is not a popularity contest, but since leading requires some level of consultation and hand holding- unpopular leader cannot leave an abiding legacy since people will simply refuse to cooperate and achieve anything tangible for the collective good. Even though a failed, unpopular leader like Obasanjo can point later in the future to his vision, such leader will have failed at the leadership task because his adversarial attitude could not translate his/her vision to reality. Great leaders are realistic of their prospects and respectful of the perspective of others.

In my short time in life, I have been called to lead in many situations. Be it in classroom, educational institutions, political and professional organizations or even the church. Some people have said I have the uncommon privilege of being blessed with both the garb and stature of a leader. Perhaps for this reason, leadership comes natural to me in terms appointment but not in terms of success. You see, it is a great thing to be appointed a leader; but it is a rather different ball game to emerge as a successful leader in titular office. One of such tremendous opportunities I had as a leader was back in college when I led a professional organization on campus.

For one, the organization I took over was in disarray. In fact, it was virtually non-existent when I was elected chairman. But one thing that made this leadership position different from any other I had held before then or after was the fulfillment I got from mentoring and building other leaders that will later succeed me. After my exit from office, many years later, leaders I left had led that organization while many of them have also in the process built other leaders. More important to me, was that nearly all the leaders I mentored performed better than I did in office but if you still go back there today, they all still reference my tenure as a turning point in the organization. Capacity building, not monument erection makes the difference between leaders and megalomaniacs.

I have failed severally in leadership in the past, but have come to learn nothing destroys a leader better than being preoccupied with picking, imposing or selecting their own successors. In fact, it is a shame if a leader cannot build a coterie of successor enough to generate serious and good competition where the best will emerge instead of childish handpicking. A good leader enjoys his twilight in office, and sit back to watch the next generation form before his eyes without denigrating meddlesomeness.

Any leader that need to impose a single successor have done a bad job at multiplying his leadership traits, and is like tree capable of bearing just one fruit before it withers away. Leaders are proficient multipliers- they are a single source of inspiration that electrifies millions. Look for Gandhi and you will see a Nehru, look for Martin Luther King and you will see a Jesse Jackson. Jack Welch, the former bigger than life CEO of GE, mentored Jack Immelt (CEO of GE), Bob Nardelli (formerly of Home Depot and now of Chrysler), and McNerny first of 3M and now Boeing CEO. JFK, FDR and millions of other leaders still inspire generations that never encountered them directly. Leaders multiply! They even do more multiplication passively than actively.

The bane of Nigeria and indeed Africa was that we have not successfully transitioned from the monarchial mentality to the modern realities of democracy. Leadership under monarchies rested on the same principles that are necessary for success today. Under the monarchy, successors are predetermined and groomed. Be it the first son or younger brother of the King, the leader to be is developed to become a leader. Of course, the greatest flaw of this system was that men were playing God. What if the groomed successor dies before the king? What if the king die early or too early? What if there is a revolt? What if?

Democracy however solved this problem by allowing leaders to groom successors, many successors, by multiplication. Leaders can now have the pleasure of contributing their quota and truly retiring. But African leaders like Mugabe, Bongo, Jammeh and Obasanjo suffer from the rule to die mentality. There comes a time, when a man should take a bow and look back and say sincerely: “I have fought a good fight of courage; I have finished my course”. That is what Africa lacks- leaders with courage, who can stand up to realities of life outside office like Nelson Mandela and Joaquim Chissano.

You may also like

1 comment

Patricia December 6, 2007 - 11:38 am

Michael, I really enjoyed your article and the way in which it was written. I am the Department Head of Technology where I work as a Business Education Teacher. I must say the Department Head position is starting to be more challenging. For one thing, it was given to me after only one year as a teacher at my school–while others had been here before me. I was asked by one person, "Why did the principal make you Department Head". Quite a nice welcome! Next, the previous Department Head of Technology, who had been in that position since the school was built nine years ago is not as supportive as she should be, but is rather in the same corner of the one who questioned my appointment. However, along with this positon comes a lot of responsiblity and the formation of a few other spin-offs of other organizations, which also need to be spearheaded.

I have been a Sales Manager and in leadership positions before, but I find this one, mingled with jealously is starting to put me in a defensive mood.

This experience is a first in dealing with these types of problems, but your article, which was right on time, helped me to focus on why I am the leader in the first place.

I love your writing style. Thank you!



Leave a Comment